A Present Heart: How to Practice Mindfulness and Ease Anxiety in a Pandemic
The pandemic has brought with it a lot of uncertainty, grief, and loss — things that are hard to deal with, especially for long periods of time. There are ways to regain a sense of peace, even in these times.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness meditation is paying attention, purposefully and non-judgmentally, to your experience in the present moment. This may seem like it won’t make much of a difference, but if you practice mindfulness intentionally throughout the day and for long periods of time, you will notice a change and an opening of your mind.
Much of mindfulness has to do with simply paying attention. Even if you are not sitting for hours meditating, you can be mindful and present in each moment, whether it is washing your hands, walking in the grass, or doing the dishes. Pay attention to all of your senses and how the act feels, smells. To take it to another level, imagine all the other people around the world who are performing the same task at the same moment, and share your experience with them in your mind.
If one person on the boat remained calm…
Mindfulness is key to remaining calm in stressful situations. A famous quote by the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh reads: “When the crowded Vietnamese refugee boats met with storms or pirates, if everyone panicked all would be lost. But if even one person on the boat remained calm and centered, it was enough. It showed the way for everyone to survive.”
These times have led to an increase in mental health problems in both children and adults. Nothing is certain and we are living in isolation and distress. Connecting online can help but it is simply not the same as being in person with other people.
So how can we train our minds to be calm in these times? How can we remain at peace even with the world seemingly going crazy around us?
How mindfulness works
Mindfulness can work like a kind of self-therapy to center your mind, regain your perspective, and open your heart to others. Practicing mindfulness meditation, or simply being in the present moment throughout the day, will help you manage anxiety and achieve better mental health.
One helpful tool is to visualize picking up all of your fears, anxieties, etc., and literally laying them in the palms or lap of a Higher Power that will hold onto them for you. You do not have to tackle everything on your own but can do so with the help of others and a Higher Source that is always by your side.
Here, we’ll outline two meditation techniques you can try to introduce you to mindfulness practice: Metta and RAIN.
Metta (Lovingkindness meditation)
A tried-and-true beginning meditation practice is called Metta, or lovingkindness meditation. This meditation keeps your heart open and connected to others.
As meditation leader Jack Kornfield explains, you begin by thinking about yourself and reciting the following phrases. Modify the wording as you wish to what works best for you. Keep reciting the phrases, either aloud or in your head.
May I be filled with lovingkindness.
May I be safe from inner and outer dangers.
May I be well in body and mind.
May I be at ease and happy.
Next, move on to someone who has truly loved you in your life, a benefactor, and recite the following phrases.
May you be filled with lovingkindness.
May you be safe from inner and outer dangers.
May you be well in body and mind.
May you be at ease and happy.
Thirdly, expand this to other loved ones, friends, community members, strangers, and beings all over the earth. Recite the phases.
Lastly, repeat the same phrases but for difficult people in your life. Start with the most difficult person in your life, and then move on to others. Continue reciting the phrases even if your mind wanders and you feel anger or irritation. Let the process do its work. Metta is a meditation that can take a long time to sink in, so give it time and make it a lifetime practice.
Another helpful practice is RAIN. Meditation instructor Tara Brach outlines this helpful tool to use in moments of high anxiety where you feel like your mind and body are spinning out of control.
In RAIN, the R stands for Recognize the fear when it arises. Acknowledge what it is that’s bothering you, and, if you can, what the fear stems from. The next step is to Allow the fear to coexist within you. Accept it and don’t try to hide it or brush it away.
Next, Investigate the fear. Feel how it feels in your body, and where it is located. Investigate without judgment, as if it’s an object you’re examining. Lastly, Nurture the feeling. Place your hand on your heart or another part of your body where you feel the fear. Writes Brach, you can even say to the fear, “Thank you for trying to protect me; it’s okay.”
Breathe deeply during this process and be as present as you can.
We’re all connected
It may be hard to realize in this current period of relative isolation, but it helps to remember we ARE all connected. The things you do have an impact on others, and vice versa. We are not alone. Author Jennifer Michael Hecht writes, “None of us can truly know what we mean to other people, and none of us can know what our future self will experience. History and philosophy ask us to remember these mysteries, to look around at friends, family, humanity, at the surprises life brings — the endless possibilities that living offers — and to persevere.”